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Home Sales Figures Slip in March : Housing: Weather is blamed for the 7.9% drop in California and the 2.9% decline nationwide.


The pace of home sales in March slipped 7.9% in California and 2.9% nationwide, two real estate trade groups said Monday, as the winter's heavy rains in the West and snow in the East kept prospective buyers indoors.

The California Assn. of Realtors said sales statewide ran at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 384,220 last month, down from February's 416,950-unit pace and off 13.3% from the 443,130 sales rate of a year ago.

In a separate report, the National Assn. of Realtors said the pace of sales nationwide fell to a 3.36-million annual rate in March, down from February's 3.46-million pace and off 4% from a year earlier.

Most analysts had expected a decline in the March sales figures because both trade groups base their reports on transactions that have actually closed escrow instead of sales that have been agreed to.

Since it typically takes 30 to 60 days to conclude a real estate sale, the reports issued Monday primarily reflect deals made in January or February--when heavy rains battered the West and snow blanketed the East.

"The rain wiped out most of January's activity in the West, and the snow killed most . . . activity in the East," said William S. Chee, a real estate broker and president of the National Assn. of Realtors. "Mother Nature hasn't been too kind to the housing market this year."

Chee said realtors in the West and most other parts of the country are reporting an upswing in sales, but that those figures won't be reflected in the trade group's monthly report until May, June or even July.

Monday's report was "just one of a slew of March numbers that has been hurt by the weather," said Jerry Zukowski, an economist at PaineWebber in New York. "We're not going to get a good reading of the housing market until we see the April data."

Other housing experts are not as optimistic.

John Karevoll, who follows sales and price trends for La Jolla-based Dataquick Real Estate Systems, said consumer concerns about the future are offsetting the benefits of the lowest mortgage-interest rates in 20 years.

"Too many people are out of work, and a lot of others are worried about the future of their jobs," Karevoll said. "You can talk all you want about low interest rates, but nervous people still won't buy a house."

The actual number of sales in each of the 14 regions surveyed by the California real estate agents and brokers actually rose in March. But after the normal adjustment for seasonal factors, including weather conditions and sales patterns for the same month in previous years, the pace of sales fell.

"The statewide (adjusted) figure was lower because last month wasn't as strong as a typical March after we added in the seasonal factor," said Walt McDonald, a Riverside broker and president of the state's realty trade group. "The market's getting better, but these numbers don't really show it."

Without adjusting for seasonal factors, March sales in Los Angeles County surged 40.9% from February and jumped 39.7% in Orange County. Sales were up 36.5% in San Diego, 41.6% in Ventura and 21.7% in the Inland Empire.

The median price of a home statewide stood at $191,520 in March, up 1.7% from February's $188,320 median but down 4.8% from the $201,260 median of a year ago.

In Orange County, the median home price was $218,690 in March, down 2.3% from February and down 8.2% from $238,160 a year earlier.

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